On April 30th, the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning was honoured with the Cinema Eye Legacy Award at a special screening at Hot Docs, and I can think of few other documentaries that deserve that recognition. Directed by Jennie Livingston, this 25-year-old film continues to speak volumes about an amazing and inspiring subculture born out of the fringes of society by individuals pigeonholed as outcasts.
Paris is Burning is a documentary full of colour, beauty, exuberance, and enthusiasm. It is fun and funny, but also a film that evokes empathy and sadness. It’s one of the best documentary films ever made, and certainly the best documentary film on gender performativity, class relations, gender identity, drag culture, and gay America in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
The LGBTQ Black and Latino men of New York City circa the late ’80s celebrated their inner fabulousness through the art of dressing in drag and the concept of “realness.” Drag is both a parody and critique of social norms and racial and class roles, and a way for gay minority men to become members of the mainstream through alternative culture. The various drag categories at a ballroom, or a theatrical runway show held in gay bar basements, cater to every avatar of rich, successful, white heteronormativity a poor, gay, minority youth aspires to be, such as “Private Schoolboy/Schoolgirl” and “Town and Country.” There is even a “military scene,” in which natural and accurate portrayals of straight-laced, disciplined military men by gay black males are rewarded with trophies and adulation at balls.
The film introduces the concept of “realness,” i.e. being able to successfully pass in public as whatever, whoever, you are imitating. Drag performers are well aware that wealth and certain levels of success are only attainable for straight, white people, and “realness” means being able to successfully emulate the look and attitude of a wealthy person despite being the opposite.
In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive, and therefore you’re showing the straight world that ‘I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one, because I can look like one.’
– DORIAN COREY of Paris is Burning
Using iconic references to television shows, film, music and fashion, drag culture attempts to rewrite white, heteronormative popular culture so that it may be owned by a LGBTQ minority culture. By reclaiming traditionally beautiful, successful icons and modeling their look on theirs, a queer audience can ultimately be one of the elite AND parody its ridiculousness with camp and sharp wit. Paris is Burning was ahead of the curve in celebrating this empowering practice, teaching and preaching this art of acceptance years and years before the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
People talk a lot about films that inspired them to be better people or improve themselves. Paris is Burning taught me to feel gorgeous no matter what others think of an outlandish outfit, to throw shade at haters, to have the courage to be whatever or whoever you want to be, even when almost everyone is opposed to your very existence.
Laura is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.